Pit Bulls as Therapy Dogs – Austin’s Pit Crew

Last week, we interviewed our own volunteer Education Director about ARLP's therapy dog program, PRIORITY PawsToday, we are thrilled to be able to share an interview with Lydia Zaidman of Love-A-Bull in Austin, Texas, about their all-pit therapy dog program known as The Pit Crew. We love reading about the similarities and differences between the programs -- there is so much to learn from the work being accomplished by the many excellent pit bull rescues around the country. If you would like your Rott- or pit-centric therapy dog program to be included in this series, please e-mail Sara Nick. Enjoy!

Photos courtesy of Love-A-Bull.

Tell us a bit about how The Pit Crew got started.

Love-A-Bull’s all-pit therapy program, The Pit Crew, launched on February 24, 2011. Love-A-Bull believes in educating and leading through example, as well as providing a wealth of community services through its programs. A major component of Love-A-Bull’s mission is to promote a positive public image of all dogs commonly labeled “pit bulls,” so by placing these dogs in a setting where they are providing therapeutic services to youth and those with special needs, it shows that pit bulls are deserving of love, praise, and respect. We hope that The Pit Crew program will open minds and replace negative stereotypes with more accurate and positive images. The dogs in this program are true “breed ambassadors.”

How many dog teams are currently participating with The Pit Crew? How often do you go on visits?

We currently have 14 dog teams and handlers in our program. We try to do between three and four site visits each month.

What are the requirements for a dog/handler team if they want to join your program?

Anyone with a dog labeled as a “pit bull” can register for the Pit Crew’s training classes if his or her dog has passed the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test and can provide proof. The dogs must be spayed/neutered, well-socialized, possess an appropriate temperament (not overly shy or overly excitable), and respond well to a variety of situations and stimuli. Generally, the temperament that will end up graduating must meet the following criteria: (1) friendly with people of all types and abilities; (2) controllable, predictable, reliable and calm, and (3) dog social.

Describe The Pit Crew's curriculum and who it serves.

The Pit Crew offers animal-assisted therapy to students at Gullet Elementary School, many of whom have special needs and are disabled. In addition, The Pit Crew offers reading assistance to students, many of whom also have special needs, such as dyslexia. The Pit Crew also visits The BeHive, an innovative after-school program for school-age children in a neighborhood known for high crime, high unemployment, and a lack of affordable, quality care for children. The Pit Crew also services Elder Haven, an adult day care program, as well as Regent Care Center, a nursing care facility. The Pit Crew also works at St. David’s with survivors of traumatic brain injuries. In addition, The Pit Crew has visited Perez Elementary School and KinderCare daycare to offer advice on how to properly treat animals, has helped educate the public on animal care at Town Lake Animal Center's Wellness Clinic, and has attended other public events, such as festivals, farmers’ markets and community-wide celebrations. New venues are always being added, but The Pit Crew intends to service only a small number of venues so that it can keep an appropriate ratio of volunteers to venues. The Pit Crew believes that customer service is of utmost importance.

Have you faced any breed discrimination in trying to get the programs set up? If so, how did you overcome it?

It is always a challenge to combat negative stereotypes of pit bulls that have taken hold through sensationalized media and inaccurate reporting, so The Pit Crew faces the same kind of mixed reaction that all pit bulls do. But we are making progress: there is already a ‘fan club’ at Gullett Elementary School called the “Pit Crew Peeps” made up of children who enjoy seeing the Pit Crew in their school and community, so we hope that others will become fans as well!

Why do you think pit bulls make good therapy dogs?

As natural “people-pleasers” pit bulls can be perfect therapy dogs. Their ability to learn quickly and adjust to various environments is a good fit for therapy work. By providing comfort and assistance to those with mental, emotional, or physical challenges, pit bulls can prove -- in one more important way -- that they are talented, versatile, and loving animal companions.

What advice would you give to someone starting their own pit bull therapy dog program?

Love-A-Bull operates with a basic attitude of “let’s be brave and try it!” with many of its initiatives because, frankly, pro-pittie programs in many communities are rare. We decided to fill a void in terms of positive education and outreach, and what it took was guts, energy, time, and commitment. With those in place, anyone can do anything they put their minds to!

We encourage others to plant a seed of an idea and give it some nutrients (time and effort); then, given some support (contributions or shared effort by others), that idea can grow. That’s how Love-A-Bull started and how we continue to thrive. With the Pit Crew, it just took willingness from a local trainer who had therapy dog experience, openness and cooperation from a local school principal, and the hearts, minds, and time of several dedicated pit bull owners – and of course, some fantastic dogs – these are the components to get it off the ground. We are anxious to see where it goes (and grows) from here!

For more information about The Pit Crew, check out their website!


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